John F. Kennedy High School considers itself Newark, N.J.'s "Best Kept Secret" — the staff even answers the phone with that tag line, and deservedly so. But as Samantha Buck's moving documentary makes clear, the secret weapon at the public school for special-needs students is Janet Mino, an inspirational teacher with limitless patience and indefatigable enthusiasm.
Mino has taught her classroom of a half-dozen autistic boys in the country's 10th-poorest city for four years. They are all about to age out of the system — or, as one mom in Buck's research referred to it, "fall off the cliff." The film focuses on three of Mino's students: Erik, a sweet, outgoing kid whose dream is to work at Burger King; Quron, a kind, quiet boy who's lucky to have both parents raising him; and Robert, who will break your heart.
Over the course of 18 months — a clever structure that creates a ticking clock — Mino struggles to find government-funded programs in which to place her students after graduation that won't undo all her hard work. This is no sappy portrait of a saint: Mino is tenacious, critical and defensive, and in one memorable scene, a colleague tries to get her to face reality about what the real world holds for their students after graduation. (For one thing, they'll start being called "consumers.")